modern harmony

11/28/09 - at the Guggenheim, NY City

In one of many letters shared between himself and painter Vasily Kandinsky, modernist composer Arnold Schoenberg summarized their mutual artistic pursuit: ”in what you call the ‘unlogical’ and I call the ‘elimination of the conscious will in art.’ ”

The conviction that drove Schoenberg was also described as dissonance, or, in Kandinsky’s case – “absolute” pictures, which actively made no discernible relation to the visible world.

Whatever the word choice, there can be no doubt that the source of their inspiration was nonetheless the same bottomless wellspring.

Arnold Schoenberg was a musician who painted. Vasily Kandinsky was a painter who occasionally composed. They admired each other’s art. And both men wrote treatises in their respective disciplines that inextricably locked their steps to propel them forward in defining art and artistic theory in the modern era.

These are artists whose sonic and visual worlds were realized through the dissolution and recreation of established convention and form. It’s music, but Schoenberg’s vision assures it’s not harmonically or logically progressive in any traditionally formal manner. Similarly, in Kandinsky’s paintings, the subject matter and object relationships aren’t congruent with reality (or each other), and his progressively hyper-saturated palette defies any natural reference points.

This not to say the resulting works aren’t orderly – quite the opposite, in fact, I actually find sometimes the beauty of their expression lies in their structure. Like the architecture of a bridge or the external stone buttresses of a Gothic church, the construct of function becomes an inseparable aspect of the overall aesthetic.

This isn’t the breakdown of order; it’s the creation of a new one.

Here’s what I’m talking about: listen to Schoenberg’s iconic Pierrot Lunaire (1912):

– and, from the same year, look at Kandinsky’s The Garden of Love (Improvisation Number 27) :

The Garden of Love (Improvisation #27), 1912

(This is powerful stuff. And, a century later, the debate continues…check out the running conversation of comments beneath the YouTube video!)

The Guggenheim Museum in New York City is currently hosting an unfathomably comprehensive collection of Kandinsky’s paintings. It opened on September 18th. After two months of antsy anticipation I made the visit this past weekend. — YOW!

Frank Lloyd Wright's stunning atrium at the Guggenheim

I can’t think of a better way for the Museum to celebrate its 50th anniversary. This exhibit gets the very core of the Museum’s original founding mission and focus: starting in the 1920s, on the recommendation of painter (and future Museum Director) Hilla Rebay, Solomon Guggenheim began collecting the paintings of Kandinsky and other abstract artists. By the late ’30s Guggenheim was regularly entertaining showings at his apartment, and over the next two decades the Guggenheim Foundation took shape. The Museum opened in October of 1959.

Many of the works in the current show belong to the Museum’s permanent collection, they’re a conglomoration of the works originally collected by Guggenheim himself and those given to the institution by Hilla Rebay’s estate after she passed away in 1967. Rebay’s contributions are considerable, in fact they comprise the majority of the watercolor, acrylic and gouache works in the separate “Kandinsky on Paper” room. These were among my favorite works.

The things I liked about this exhibit are numerous. The complementary (with the admission price) audio tour was rich, fascinating, and clearly a work of great labor, and deep personal interest and investment. The contextual dimension it added to the visual experience was invaluable. When Kandinsky’s interaction with Schoenberg is explored, for example, the audio tour offered insightful commentary and carefully curated music examples to underscore the significance of this relationship and make it real for the listener.

I also loved the intuitive utilization of the building’s interior spiral ramp, to offer a chronological pathway along which Kandinsky’s life unfolds in art and mini-timelines. By the time I reached the top I had spent over two hours making my way there, and Kandinsky’s final (Parisian) works were a stark, sweet reward for the journey.

The Guggenheim’s Kandinsky retrospective is simply a knockout achievement. It will be there through January 13th, 2010. Get there if you possibly can – spend the day, take the audio tour, and at the end you will know you’ve been somewhere much bigger and more meaningful than a mere Museum. This exhibit will transport you.

Tip: if you go, print up this coupon and bring it with you for $2 off  each admission, good for up to 6 adults. And don’t turn down that free audio tour!

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